Focus groups with 38 women from three age cohorts (18-22, 28-36, and 45-56 years old) were conducted to gain a better understanding of how women negotiate meaning when watching reality TV programs that focus on sex-as-power imagery. Sex-as-power imagery was conceptualized as women using overt sexuality to get ahead in their careers, to attain monetary rewards, to express power, and to gain other types of rewards. The women responded to clips from three popular reality shows: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Girls Next Door, and My Super Sweet 16.
The Media Practice Model was used to explore how the women’s identities (e.g., as mothers, feminists, Christians) affected their: (1) media selection, including the desire to escape, relax, and fulfill social needs; (2) media interaction, or the negotiation of meaning, including perceptions of realism, enjoyment, and responses to living in a sexualized culture; and, (3) media application, including perceived third-person effects, social comparisons, and pressure to conform to the body standards presented on the shows.
Women across generations were affected by the sexualized images, with frequent viewers more likely to learn from and model behaviors they saw on the shows. Generational differences suggest that media cultures influence identity work and the ways in which women apply what they view to their lives. The younger women enjoyed the shows to relax and pass time, and were more likely to see the portrayals as normative, accepting sex-aspower imagery as a valid option for women.
The older women enjoyed the shows primarily as an escape, both from the worries of their lives and the people in their lives. The older women were concerned for younger audiences and felt a sexualized self-presentation would translate into sexual behaviors. Social comparisons opened the door to feelings of pressure, which acted as a driving force for modification of beliefs and behaviors.
The women’s reactions to the shows suggests that the sexualized individualism celebrated by the reality TV women masks gender inequalities, undercuts critical perspectives, and promotes a postfeminist and neoliberal mentality, focused on selfregulation and personal choice.